Actors Stefan Espinosa and Venessa Ballam are pen pals — but don’t know it –in the charming musical comedy ‘She Loves Me’ now being performed by the Utah Festal Opera & Musical Theatre at the Utah Theatre on Center Street in downtown Logan (Photo by Waldron Creative).
LOGAN – In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a total sucker for musicals where Venessa Ballam and Stefan Espinosa perform together.
Call me corny, but there’s something incurably romantic about a real-wife husband and wife falling in love again right before your eyes.
I’m also a big fan of the Jerry Block-Sheldon Harnick musical She Loves Me, now being performed by the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre.
Granted, it’s one of the most under-rated shows you’ve never heard of. Somehow, none this show’s fine music has ever made the big jump to the standard songbook. In fact, you can’t remember any of the score of She Loves Me five minutes after you leave the theater.
But the show – directed by George Pinney with Nick Pothier conducting the orchestra — is irresistibly charming and was made even more so by a sensational cast of UFOMT performers.
The show’s plot is completely predictable, but that’s because She Loves Me has deep roots in the entertainment world.
Hollywood first told this story of co-workers — who, despite being at odds at work, are unaware that they are secret pen-pals through lonely-hearts ads — as The Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in 1940.
The first musical adaptation of the story appeared as In the Good Old Summertime in 1949 with Van Johnson and Judy Garland.
Then there’s You’ve Got Mail, a 1998 e-mail comedy film featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
Way back in 1995, She Loves Me was the first musical that I saw Michael Ballam perform in and now his daughter and son-in-law take the stage in the same show.
Espinosa plays Georg Novak, a sales clerk in a Hungarian perfumery in the 1930s. He has formed an admittedly improbable relationship with a female pen pal who turns out to be a co-worker that Georg cordially detests face-to-face.
Espinosa normally plays clowns and faithful sidekicks in UFOMT productions. This time he gets the girl … and what a girl.
The crown princess of UFOMT, Ms. Ballam is Amalia Balash. Despite being typecast in mostly aristocratic roles, this time she lets her hair down. Picture Vanessa Ballam sitting on a bed in her pajamas eating ice cream and singing. Yeah, that gets me too.
The other cast members are equally top-notch.
Local audiences are familiar with Lindsey Kelstrom, who has now graduated from directing and starring roles with other Cache Valley companies to UFOMT. Ms. Kelstrom is wonderfully sweet in her supporting role as Ilona Ritter, a hard-luck shop girl who just can’t find the right man – until the second act.
Her rendition of “A Trip to the Library” is – well – charming; I can’t think of a better word to describe it.
Bryce J. Bartu is shop clerk Steven Kodaly —Ms. Kelstrom’s wrong guy. He plays that role to oily perfection.
The other shop denizens are Alexander Spence as delivery boy Arpad, Fatu Su’esu’e as clerk Ladislav Sipos and – of course – our own W. Lee Daily who does a delightfully understated turn as Mr. Maraczek.
Kudos to director Pinney for imaginative staging. She Loves Me could have been played as a very small-cast affair. Instead, Pinney threw in everything but the kitchen sink – hordes of shop customers, tango-dancers in a café scene, even an amusing Christmas rush that must have been a headache to choreograph.
That café scene also gave Timothy Stewart and David Postlewate a chance to shine as a hilarious waiter and busboy.
For my money, She Loves Me is the crowd-pleasing, sleeper hit of the UTOMT’s 2022 season.
But that’s just me.
Matinee performances of She Loves Me are scheduled for July 15, 19, 26, 29 and Aug. 3 at the Utah Theatre on Center Street in downtown Logan.
A single evening performance of the show is set for July 22 at 7:30 p.m.